Wednesday, February 16, 2011

see what I mean?

An example of the specious "I can't see a horse in his brain, so the brain can't be linked to the mind" argument here. Alas, this sort of thinking seems little different from a "God of the gaps" argument: Science hasn't fully explained this phenomenon, so any current scientific speculation about it must be false. (God-of-the-gapsistas would replace "any current scientific speculation about it must be false" with "it must be the work of God.") This argument has about as much worth as saying, "I can't see an actual image of Jack Black when I use my microscope to look closely at my Blu-ray disc, so I conclude that there's no connection between this disc and the image of Jack Black on my screen."

What will the substance dualists say if scientists do manage to invent a way to render thoughts-- with increasing accuracy-- on a screen, per the "Black Hole" episode of House (Season 6, episode 15, which shows a fictionalized version of cognitive mapping of the subconscious)? I'm assuming the dualists' answer is a confident "They won't." Which is good: that provides us with our Popperian metric for falsifiability. Should scientists ever achieve this breakthrough, dualists should fall on their swords to recover their honor. But they won't; we already know this. Instead, they'll just move the goalposts, as they've been doing, because that's the nature of ego. They want to insist on their own ignorance, science and evidence be damned. As I wrote in Water from a Skull:

Britney: The problem is that you can’t really build an artificial mind. You can build something that simulates the mind, perhaps, or at least simulates conscious behavior. But you can’t construct something that’s actually conscious. The mind isn’t material, so it can’t be built out of material things.

Arnold: I was afraid you’d take that stance. You realize, of course, that your approach to mind dooms you to permanent ignorance about its fundamental nature.

Britney: What? How so?

Arnold: You’ve made two unprovable claims: first, that mind is immaterial, a claim that places itself outside the purview of scientific inquiry, making it, as Carl Sagan contended, “veridically worthless.” Second, that qualia are radically subjective, which makes it impossible to build an argument about minds in general on them. How is this different from solipsism?

Britney: I still don’t get the whole “ignorance” thing. I’m a philosopher, Arnold. My entire life has been one long inquiry into the nature of reality. Why would I wall myself off from certain speculative possibilities?

Arnold: Because your fundamental commitments prevent you from seeing a very obvious truth: materialistic assumptions about minds are producing results. We’re building artificial entities that exhibit increasingly complex behaviors. Sometime in the future, those entities will manifest behaviors that are, effectively speaking, the products of consciousness.

Britney: You can’t be sure of that!

Arnold: Why can’t I be sure of that?

Britney: Because no matter how complex an entity you build, there’s no way to confirm that the thing actually has a mind!

Arnold: Yes! My point exactly! Your underlying claim is that we can’t test for consciousness, ja? That, dear Britney, is an admission of ignorance. What if we devise amazingly stringent, subtle, comprehensive tests?

Britney: You still won’t have proven anything. Let’s say you make a robot that acts so human it can pass for human. It’s still just a machine, just a complex version of a toaster. It won’t have a mind; it won’t have that immaterial spark.

Arnold: How can I convince you that this hypothetical machine is indeed conscious?

Britney: You can’t. It’s simply impossible.

Arnold: That’s why I say your position is one of willful ignorance. Such a test, you contend, is impossible now, and will always be impossible.

Britney: Back up. I still don’t get your accusation about “ignorance.”

Arnold: Look; you’re saying that the mind is immaterial and that qualia are radically subjective. This means that your side can never really understand what mind is, because you’re convinced there’s no way to explore it scientifically. Further, you insist there’s no way to test for the presence of consciousness, which is tantamount to saying you don’t know what consciousness is. After all, when you want to test for something—to see whether it’s there or not—you have to know something about it. Take AIDS testing. If I don’t have any idea what AIDS is, it’s kind of hard to design a test for it, don’t you think? By the same token, if you don’t have a clear idea what consciousness is, it’s kind of hard to test for that as well. I infer your ignorance from your inability to envision a test for consciousness.


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